Light of my Life

It’s always a party when I pull out my kitchen torch.

Today’s occasion:  French onion soup.  Earlier at the farmers’ market, pearly white sweet onions—still kissed with morning dew—looked almost too gorgeous to touch.

A sudden vision of the well-picked-over roast chicken carcass in the fridge at home was a wake-up nudge that a tasty chicken stock was  waiting in the wings.

A hearty beef stock really makes onion soup sing, but a chicken stock simmered in the remains of a flavorful roast is a beautiful thing, too.  In my slow cooker, stock is an effortless commodity.  For the onion soup stock, I’d add onion cuttings, a carrot for a touch of sweetness, and fresh herbs, then cover it all with boiling water and check back later in the day.

My go to Onion Soup follows, but I tend to change it up it depending on what I have on hand.  Sweet onions with a high sugar content are key; sauté them over moderately low heat until they begin to turn color and caramelize. If necessary, add a teaspoon of sugar while sautéing the onions to encourage the full caramelization process. Once the stock is added, the soup is ready within a half hour—or it can be set aside and reheated when ready.

BonJour Torch

 

To finish it all, I carved and toasted thick slices of a multi-grained artisan bread and sprinkled them with a combination of shaved Parmesan and Havarti cheese. No need to crank up the broiler on this warm summer day.

My trusty torch was on hand for the artful transformation of simple ingredients into a glorious soup crowned with essential rafts of toasted cheesy goodness.

 Onion Soup

Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoon brandy
6 cups rich beef or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
½ teaspoon each fresh savory and rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup white wine or dry sherry
Accompaniments:  6 croutons (1/2” thick slices toasted baguette)
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. In a soup pot, sauté onions with butter and olive oil over medium heat until aromatic. Reduce heat and stir occasionally, cook until onions are deep golden and caramelized, 30 minutes or longer.
  2. Deglaze pan by carefully pouring in brandy and stir well. Add stock, seasonings, wine, and simmer partially covered for 30 minutes.
  3. In individual bowls, place a crouton in center and sprinkle with cheese, pour a generous amount of onion soup over each. If using oven proof bowls, broil 3” from heat source, watching carefully until tops bubble and brown. Serve with more cheese.   Serves 4 – 6.

The Everything Crepe

From tortillas to injera bread, just about every country in the world has its variation of a quick, simple bread often prepared in a unique pan, on the grill, or in the oven.

Then there’s the crepe. Let’s call it a multi-national bread because it has pancake cousins spread across continents, too. In this version, we have high jacked the Italian crespelle for the basis of an inspired Asian wrap.  Semolina flour lends added chewiness and flexibility that makes it quite irresistible. There are so many dumplings and breads of note in the northern reaches of China that this crepe should feel quite at home wrapped around other Asian flavors, like Anise Poached Chicken from the previous post.

The Everything Crepe

Take the basic crepe batter, add a little chopped green onion and a smattering of mixed sesame seeds (or highly recommended Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend) and proceed as usual.

If you choose to go the Asian route, slather your finished crepe with hoisin sauce and wrap portions of Asian Salad, Anise Chicken, Char Siu, or other barbecue pork—you name it!

Easy Asian Wrap

Or, you could go New York-style, forget the sauce, and fill your crepe with creamed cheese and lox!

The Everything Crepe

Ingredients
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup water, room temperature
½ cup fine semolina flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon mixed blend of black and white sesame seeds and poppy seeds, or see below*
1 tablespoon green onion, chopped

Directions

  1. In medium bowl sift the dry ingredients, beat the eggs, butter and water together and slowly add to the dry, whisking until smooth. Stir in the seeds and green onions to combine.  Allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour or chill for up to 2 days and bring to room temperature before proceeding.
  2. Heat a 10” crepe pan or flat round skillet over medium to medium-high heat, depending on unit.  Brush the surface with butter, or wipe with coated toweling.  Stir down the batter and thin with a bit of water if it has thickened beyond the thickness of heavy cream.  Pour about ¼ cup of batter into pan and quickly swirl it to reach the entire surface.  Pour any excess back into bowl.  Trim any errant edges as it cooks.  When bubbles begin to form, about 1 minute, carefully turn with spatula or wood spoon and cook 2nd side for 30 seconds to one minute.
  3. Remove the crepe to a holding plate, wipe the pan if necessary with more butter and repeat, stacking the crepes with 2nd side up.  Yield: about 10 crespelle.
  4. If made in advance, wrap the crepes in plastic wrap or foil.  Can be made ahead 2 days, stored in refrigerator, or freeze well wrapped.

*Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend is a mixture of white and black sesame seeds, poppy seeds, seas salt flakes, dried minced garlic, dried minced onion.

Pizza Dough: Playing with Flax

I have a new bag of flax meal that I’ve been tinkering with… it’s my way of boosting my omega-3 fatty acid levels by mixing it into breakfast cereal, smoothies, and such. I’ve learned that a little goes a long way. Flax has a generous amount of fiber that can roar through your system, plowing past anything in its path, so use an amount based on preferential tolerance.

Recently I discovered that flax is a natural in pizza crust and other yeast breads. Its inherent nuttiness and pale tobacco color are a perfect complement to a crust enriched with a touch of whole wheat.  Used in my current go-to pizza dough, a combination of all-purpose and whole wheat flours laced with flax meal yielded a toasted-yeast flavor and a resilient texture that rolls out like a dream.

Even though there a two phases to this dough, the entire rising process still takes only an hour.  The first 15-20 minute proofing period activates the yeast with warm water, a bit of sugar, and flour to give the rising process a kick start.  This is stirred into the flour/flax mix until a well-blended mass forms, then turned out and kneaded until smooth. It’s covered, placed in a warm spot, and left to rise until double, about 40 minutes.

Since I prefer pre-baking my crust to move through the ‘fussing with dough’ phase—and ward off sogginess—I like to punch it down, roll it out as thin as I please, and give it a quick bake to set, 8 to 10 minutes. Then, it’s only a matter of gathering together toppings and baking it all off in a hot oven for 15 or 20 minutes until it’s hot and bubbly.

As often with my pizzas, the topping combination is invariably a matter of what I have on hand. On this day, I had a partial bag of mixed greens: kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.  I envisioned a creamed greens base for my pizza topped with sliced onion, red and pasilla peppers, Kalamata olives and Havarti cheese.

For the creamed greens I sautéed onion, slivered garlic, rosemary, and crushed red pepper in olive oil, then added a couple of cups of the shredded greens to the pan and continued to toss and slowly cook until soft and reduced. A slurry of ½ cup milk and 2 teaspoons cornstarch was stirred in along with a dash of nutmeg, salt, and white pepper.  As it cooked I added a couple of spoonfuls of grated Parmesan and simmered the creamed greens until thick and tender.

All of this was layered onto the crust and baked until bubbly and golden brown. Yes, indeed, an evening with the Tony Awards—and another gourmet delight!

Fast Double-Rise Pizza

Ingredients 
1 envelope quick rise yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup warm water
1-1/4 cup all-purpose flour or a combination of: 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup whole wheat flour, 2 tablespoons flax meal
1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup flour or more for roll out

Directions

  1. In a 2 cup measure or bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, 1/4 cup flour and water; proof in a warm place until bubbly and light, 15-20 minutes.
  2. In mixing bowl place 1-1/4 cup flour (see above for combination with flax), and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the yeast mixture and combine well. Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth.
  3. Cover and let rise in a warm space until doubled, 30-40 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 400-425° F; oil a pizza pan or baking sheet. Roll dough out on floured board into desired size and shape.
  5. To fully bake with toppings:  Roll out, add sauce and toppings of choice and bake 15-20 minutes, until center is bubbly and crust is golden brown.    Yield: 1 large pizza.

Note: To pre-bake for later use:  bake 8-10 minutes @ 400-425°, until firm to touch, but not yet colored. Bake as needed in hot oven for about 15 minutes.

Donut Holes—Made Easy

Yes, donut holes with all of the taste, none of the frying, and cute enough to warrant packing one away in each cheek. The real secret to these light, cakelike bites is the coating of cinnamon-sugar that’s held firmly in place by a whisper of butter thinly brushed onto their exteriors while still warm.

Muffins are one of the easiest quick breads to bake, and actually benefit from the least amount of handling. Dust off a mini-muffin pan or two and bake up a batch in absolutely no time. As with any cake donut, we want the contrast of crispy exteriors and light interiors. Here are a few tips to get you there.

For even distribution and rising, sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Over stirring makes tough cone-topped donuts. Combine the liquid ingredients separately and add all at once to the dry ingredients in as few strokes as possible. A few lumps are fine. For consistent cup filling, use a small ½-ounce scoop; a tablespoon will also work.

Muffins are done when they are well-rounded with a light golden color and the centers spring back when pressed. For maximum crispiness do not cool in pan. Run a knife around edges to loosen and turn out onto cooling rack.

While warm lightly brush each donut hole all over with butter and roll in cinnamon-sugar.  Let rest 15 minutes to allow sugar coating to crystalize, and have at it!

Donut Hole Muffins

Ingredients
1½  cups all-purpose flour
2   tablespoons cornstarch
1½  teaspoons baking powder
½   teaspoon salt
½   teaspoon nutmeg
1   egg
⅓   cup vegetable oil
½   cup granulated sugar
¾   cup milk
Topping
¼   cup butter, melted
½   cup sugar
1   teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° and thoroughly coat mini muffin cups with cooking spray.
  2. Sift flour, cornstarch, and baking powder into a medium sized mixing bowl.  Add the salt and nutmeg and mix well.
  3. In a small bowl whisk together the egg, oil, sugar, and milk.  Stir the liquid into the dry ingredients just to combine.
  4. Using ½-ounce scoop or a tablespoon, fill the cups with batter and bake for 20 minutes, until they begin to turn golden brown and the tops spring back when pressed. Turn muffins out onto cooling rack.
  5. Meanwhile, combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small wide bowl. One at a time, lightly brush each muffin all over with melted butter and then roll in the cinnamon sugar. Place on baking rack and repeat. Allow to set up about 15 minutes and serve.  Yield: 24-30 donut holes.

Scones: fresh from the oven!

A beautiful scone beats a biscuit hands down—in my humble opinion. For most Southerners, those could very well be fighting word.  But, since this is my blog, I will continue.  Scones make a handy quick bread for breakfast, a special brunch, or an afternoon snack with tea.  These have real character. Their rough-hewn shape shouts, ‘Hearty country, made with love! Fresh from the oven!’

Blueberries are outstanding in these scones, but they also worthy of Oregon’s Marionberries or even pitted cherries.  In this batch I’ve substituted ¾-cup whole wheat flour for ¾-cup all-purpose flour, and for fruit, dried cranberries and apricots.  Dried fennel, other herbs and spices are obvious additions, whether in lieu of fruit or as a complement.

Scones are a snap to make with a food processor, but I have made them using 2 knives to cut the butter into the flour—much like making a pie dough.  Beyond that, it’s a simple matter of stirring the liquid into dry and forming the dough into two loaves, with the least amount of possible fuss.

The secret to light scones is minimal handling and a moderately hot oven for fast rising.  To do this, quickly form into two rounds and score the tops—instead of shaping individually.  Cool briefly before slicing into portions and enjoy hot with butter, jam, or straight up.  Store whole loaves lightly wrapped, reheat, and cut to order. For more ideas, check out the variations that follow.

Basic Scones

Ingredients
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. baking powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup chilled butter cut into small chunks, or shortening
2 large eggs, beaten with enough milk to equal 2/3 cup
Optional finishing for tops:  2-3 tbsp. milk, 2-3 tbsp. demerara or cinnamon-sugar

Directions

  1. Butter a baking sheet or line with silpat. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. In a mixing bowl sift the flour through salt.
  3. Using a food processor or 2 knives, cut the butter into flour mix until it becomes a grainy texture.
  4. Make a well in the center of the butter-flour and pour in the egg-milk liquid. Stir briefly to bring ingredients together and fold in fruit or other additions if using (details below).
  5. Turn out onto a floured surface and lightly knead if shaggy and form a round. Divide mound in half and pat into 2-6″ rounds, about 3/4″ thick. Mark the tops into 5-6 wedges with a sharp knife.
  6. Place on a greased sheet. Brush the tops evenly with milk and dust with sugar. Bake at 375° approximately 20 minutes, until golden brown.  Yield: 10-12 scones.

Berry Variation
1 cup blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, etc. (fresh or frozen, defrosted)
2 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
Dust the berries with flour and cinnamon. Gently add to the flour-fat mixture after the egg-milk liquid.  Proceed as directed.

Dried Fruit Variation:   to dough add 1 cup dried fruit such as cranberries, apricots, dates, cherries, or any combination

Jammer Variation
Score each round into 6-8 wedges.  Dust thumb with flour and press down into middle of each section, making 1/2″-3/4″ wide hole. Fill each impression with favorite jam (about 1/4 cup total).   Brush with milk, sprinkle with sugar and bake.  Serve hot.

An Honest Loaf

Playing with my tiny slow cooker is much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.  You never know what you are going to get.

Yes, it’s definitely the surprises that keep me coming back.  If you are a fan of the English muffin loaf style of bread or New England brown bread, then take a look at this chewy, highly nutritious, richly flavored brown bread.  Did I mention easy?brown-bread-slice

Its unusual approach begins by soaking rolled oats in yogurt for several hours. Once the baking soda and flour mixture is combined with the yogurt mixture the batter goes wild. Random baby bubble emerge during the baking process to create a moist and fascinating texture.

The brown bread element comes chiefly from a hint of buckwheat flour. I keep a small stash on hand for its dark robust characteristics that make everything taste better—from noodles to crepes and breads. Of course, whole wheat or rye flour will work, too.  An addition of egg helps to stabilize and provide a hint of richness to a seemingly bland composition. oat-brown-breadThere’s enough sweetness from the brown sugar to tie it all the together, admirably offset the tang of the yogurt, and complement the oats, buckwheat, and whole wheat flours. Once ingredients are combined, the results are somewhere between a dough and a batter: there is no shaping, just carefully spoon it into the pot.

It may seem silly to be ‘baking’ in a crock pot, but I love the idea of using a mere 95 watts of power to create a substantial loaf in only two hours. Since this is not a firm dough, I butter my 2-quart crockery pot and run two folded strips of parchment crisscrossing in the bottom and up the sides to act as handles for lifting out the bread.

A common problem with bread baking in the slow cooker is that the top does not brown. One solution is a quick toasting under the broiler, which seems at odds with the whole premise. Instead, for an inviting crunch here, I opt for a light dusting of grainy cornmeal in the bottom of the pot and a sprinkling across the top before baking.

Oat Brown Bread

Inspired by Fix-It and Forget-It, Baking with your Slow Cooker by Phyllis Good

Ingredients
1/2 cup yogurt
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 egg
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup mixture of buckwheat and whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons coarse cornmeal for dusting

Directions

  1. Combine yogurt, milk, and oats; cover and chill for 6 to 8 hours.
  2. In a mixing bowl combine egg, oil, and sugar with yogurt; blend and mix well.
  3. Combine the flours, baking soda, and salt and stir into the liquid.
  4. Preheat 2-quart crock pot set to high; butter the crockery liner and fit it with 2 strips of parchment crisscrossed and running up the sides. Dust the bottom with cornmeal.
  5. Pour batter into the crockery pot liner and sprinkle top lightly with cornmeal. Cover the top with 3 layers of paper towels tucked under the lid to absorb moisture.
  6. Bake for about 2 hours rotating liner every 30 minutes to brown evenly, until bread pulls away from sides and tester inserted in middle comes out clean. Lift out with parchment straps onto cooling rack. If it sticks, run a knife around edges. Let cool before slicing.  Yield: 1 small loaf.

Ice Storm Baking

Here in Oregon’s central Willamette Valley, we are under winter storm conditions with yesterday’s 3-inch layer of snow. Today, early morning ice storm warnings advise all to stay off the roads due to dangerous conditions.

cranberry-orange-mini-coffeecakeHunkering down, my thoughts naturally drift to tinkering with food. I envision something easy and comforting—on the order of a warm, cheery Sunday morning coffeecake.

Of course, my recent fascination with the microwave was enough to inspire these personal portions of cranberry orange coffee cake. They were table ready within 15 minutes, including minimal cleanup.

Since everything cooks quickly in the microwave, it’s best to thoroughly pre-prep everything. I had fresh frozen cranberries handy in the freezer. To move things along I microwaved them with a dab citrusy orange marmalade until they began to pop, then set it aside to cool. Same with dry ingredients; a quick sift alleviates weird pockets of flavor.

Baking in the microwave is quite different from the traditional oven since powerful heat can create moisture accumulation. I abandoned the usual covering of food prior to cooking; it tends to adhere to the surface and make more of a mess. Also, to maintain an even rise, I turned the baking dishes every 30 seconds after the initial first minute.

indiv-cranberry-orange-coffeecakeIn total, these 3 lovelies took a little over 2 minutes total cooking time. Since the centers tend to cook first, the edges still appear undercooked, but that is fine. Carry over heat from the container plus the food’s internal heat will continue to cook after removal from the microwave.

Enjoy these warm in their baking containers.  For additional flourish, sprinkle with turbinado sugar prior to baking, or afterward cool slightly and dust tops with confectioner’s sugar or give a drizzle with xxx sugar thinned with liquid.

Cranberry Orange Mini Coffeecakes, Two Minute

Ingredients
1/3 cup fresh frozen cranberries
1 tablespoon marmalade
1/2 cup all purpose flour, or any flour combination (like 1/2 whole wheat)
2 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Dash salt
1 egg
2 tablespoon milk
Turbinado sugar, optional topping

Directions

  1. Spray 3 – 8 oz microwave safe baking dishes with non-stick spray, place on ovenproof dish.
  2. In small microwave safe container, heat cranberries and marmalade about 1 minute to soften and breakdown.  Set aside to cool.
  3. Sift dry ingredients into small mixing bowl and blend thoroughly.
  4. Separately, beat egg and milk to thoroughly combine.
  5. Combine the egg mixture with the dry ingredients and quickly swirl in the cranberry mixture.
  6. Divide batter evenly between three baking dishes, sprinkle lightly with turbinado sugar if desired.
  7. Bake on high for 1 minute.  Give each dish a slight turn and bake another 30 seconds and turn again.  Continue to bake and turn in 30 second increments for 2 minutes or more; edges will be moist, but continue to cook out of the oven.  Don’t overbake.  Yield: 3 servings.